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I'm a musician, and I advocate learning language with your ears instead of your eyes.
But I often get pushback for this view:
“You can't just assume that everyone is an auditory learner like you. Personally, I’m a visual learner so I can’t learn a language unless I can see it.”
This seems like a reasonable thing to say in light of the fact that we all have different “learning styles,” but the flawed logic becomes apparent once you apply it to a different context, such as learning to paint.
Imagine someone interrupting an artist's oil-painting demonstration with this nonsense:
“You can't just assume that everyone is a visual learner like you. Personally, I'm an auditory learner so I can't learn painting unless I can hear it!.
We know this statement to be comically absurd because, regardless if your preferred sensory strategy is seeing, hearing, smelling, touching or tasting, painting is a visual skill and thus requires a visual learning environment.
Likewise, oral communication is an auditory skill and thus requires an auditory-learning environment.
There is a reason so many of us are afraid of learning through hearing – our education system taught us to rely on learning through seeing. What’s the first thing we do when we want to learn a new skill? We find a book or article on the subject and get to consuming those little black squiggles we call “scripts” with our eyeballs.
After doing this for so many years, we have all developed a dependency for visual-learning. In fact, some of us are full-blown visual-addicts.
Can you read better than you can hear? Can you write better than you can speak? If so, you are visually addicted, and this is your intervention.
Welcome to Sound Rehab…
What the Script-Centric Paradigm to Language-Acquisition Looks Like
In your language studies, are new words and expressions presented to you in writing? If so, then you are learning language within the Script-Centric Paradigm.
Here’s the basic model for acquiring and utilizing language in the script-centric paradigm:
Foundation: The very first thing you do is memorize the target language's orthographical conventions (i.e. spelling rules) in order to develop a mental model for converting visual script to auditory sound.
Acquisition: With this foundation, new words/expressions must come to you through your eyes in order for you to memorize them. If they come to you through your ears first, you have to plug them into your script-sound converter so that you inner-eye can see it, otherwise you will NOT remember them.
Utilization: To recall these words/expressions for speech, you have to visualize their spelling with your inner eye, plug the spelling into your script-sound converter, hear the resulting sound with your inner-ear, then finally re-create that sound with your mouth.
There is A LOT of potential for error in this model. Here are the most important ones:
- The Sounds Can Get Altered: Your native reading habits are deeply ingrained after reading billions of words in your lifetime, so there is huge potential for your native language to mess up your “script-sound converter“. In fact, more than half of people’s pronunciation errors come from saying foreign words according to native orthographical conventions.
- Hearing and Speaking Can Become Inflexible: This model assumes things are always written the way they are spoken, but this is most certainly NOT the case. In normal-speed, connected speech, words get chopped, altered and fused into one another all the time. If your concept of the language is limited to its existence on paper, you'll have a hard time adapting to the realities of oral communication.
- A Meta-Thinking Habit Can Develop: “Meta-Think” refers to “thinking about the language” while you're speaking it. For example, going through conjugation tables in your head is a form of meta-think. In this case, you can develop a bad habit of meta-thinking about spelling rules. Meta-thinking siphons away the already limited mental resources you need to formulate and express your ideas in the target language. In other words, more meta-thinking = less fluency.
I use the word “can” because the extent to which these negatives will affect you will depend on the severity of your visual-addiction. Some people can balance the sound and script in their head well enough to avoid most complications, which is why it’s still possible for someone to achieve foreign language fluency in this model.
In my experience as a language-teacher and accent-coacher for thousands of people, however, I’ve come to realize that the vast majority of people CANNOT achieve this balance so easily.
That’s why I suggest an alternative paradigm – the Sound Centric paradigm.
What the Sound-Centric Paradigm for Language-Acquisition
Looks Sounds Like
When you think about it, the act of oral communication is pretty straightforward.
- Speaker has a thought
- Speaker encodes the thought into a series of mouth movements.
- The movements disturb the air particles to create sound waves
- Listener picks up these sounds waves with his ear.
- Listener decodes these soundwaves back to speaker’s intended meaning.
What allows for the listener to decode the speakers intended meaning is a shared set of conventions for linking meaning to sound, or in simpler terms – a common language.
Therefore, the model for learning the common language of another group should only have two elements to it – sound and meaning. Here's what the sound-centric model sounds like:
Foundation: The very first thing you do is train your ear to hear the all the foreign sounds as well as train your mouth to produce them (In The Mimic Method, we call this Flow-Training).
Acquisition: New words/expressions have to come through your ears for you to memorize them.
Utilization: To recall words/expressions for speech, you simply have to recall the associated sounds in your inner ear and then re-produce them with your mouth.
You should notice right away that the sound-centric model is much simpler than the script-centric one (I guess that's why it's the preferred language learning model for babies 😉 )
The ease with which you can acquire and utilize sounds, however, depends on the strength of your foundation.
Developing a sound foundation for a foreign language can be challenging for us adults, since we have allowed our auditory skills to atrophy while we fed our visual addictions.
On top of that, the Foreign Language Education industry has done nothing but nurture our visual addiction. They know people won’t buy their products unless they pump them full of eye-ball crack. In big-business, the goal of “produce as many fluent speakers as possible” will always be trumped by the goal of “produce as much revenue as possible.”
As a result, there are very few resources for people to learn language within the sound-centric paradigm.
That’s why I decided to develop my Mimic Method courses – to provide people with the resources they need to develop their sound-mastery and learn a foreign language without having to see it.
Are you motivated to get yourself off the sight-wagon and into Sound Rehab? Well here’s your 5 point program.
Point #1: Know Thy Mouth
Literacy trains us to conceptualize speech sounds as letters, which is problematic since our writing systems never completely or consistently represent the reality of speech.
For example, think of the sounds “sh” as in “shy” and “oo” as in “goo.”
These sounds are going to be associated to different scripts in another language. For example, a French speaker would think of these exact same sounds as “ch” from “chaud” and “ou” from “tout”:
That means you’re going to encounter sounds in your target language that you won't have a unique script for, so then you’ll have to recycle scripts that you’ve already associated to other sounds, and all of this can make for a very confusing situation.
Every culture has a different way of representing sound through script, but we all have the same mouths, so it's much more practical to conceptualize speech sounds through the physiological movements that produce them.
For example, instead of thinking of the sounds from above as an “English ‘sh' and ‘oo'” or French ‘ch' and ‘ou'”, you would think of them in physiological terms as the voiceless post-alveolar fricative and the close-back vowel.
These terms may seem to be too complex to have any practical use, but remember that our goal is NOT to “read” from a text but rather to develop a mental framework for organizing sounds in our head. To this end, it's best to focus on precision and consistency.
Also, this terminology is very straightforward once you have a basic understanding of how the speech organ works.
I always found it strange how language-learners know so much about obscure grammar concepts like the past plu-perfect bubonic subjunctive and the modular gerundial kryptonic splunk-dicative, but whenever I ask them to explain simple phonetic concepts like the difference between the /t/ sound and the /d/ sound, they act as if I were expecting them to know nuclear physics.
It doesn’t take much to develop a practical knowledge of phonetics and speech physiology. And not only is it very interesting to do so, it's also a necessary first step to developing physical awareness and mastery of your speech organ.
Developing an awareness and control over your speech organ is the best way to dramatically boost your aptitude for rapid language-acquisition.
Your goal as a language learner is to learn the sounds of the other group and the meanings they attach to them. With that being said, the easier you can hack the sounds, the faster you'll learn the language. This is why it's important to know thy mouth.
Point # 2: Be Mindful of your Pre-Dispositions
The same way some people have genes pre-disposing them to certain vices, we all have pre-dispositions to certain hearing and pronunciation errors in foreign languages by nature of being fluent in our native ones.
For example, one can predict that a native Spanish speaker will have trouble with the /i/ vowel from English words like “bit” and “sit” since it does NOT exist in Spanish. That’s why pronouncing words like “bit” and “sit” as “beet” and “seat” are characteristics of the typical Spanish accent.
Similarly, an English speaker almost always articulates the /e/ vowel as a diphthong /ei/, so we can expect him to pronounce /e/ vowels in other languages this way too.
If you know about your pre-dispositions for mishearing and mispronunciation, you can work to prevent them from turning into bad habits.
Going from one language to another, there are only ever a handful of potential predispositions.
Focus your attention on the most likely sticking points before anything else and you will dramatically accelerate your language-learning curve.
Point #3: Expose yourself to Feedback
Overcoming an addiction is much easier when you have a network of supporters.
Most people have a distorted perception of what they sound like. You may think you have the voice of a sex god, but to others you may sound like a whiny turd.
That’s why it’s important to constantly self-record your language-learning and expose your recordings to others, preferably native speakers, for feedback.
With my students, I use the timed-comment feature on Soundcloud.com to pinpoint the precise moment in my students' recordings when they commit pronunciation error and explain how to fix them.
Once you start exposing yourself to feedback, you’ll start to notice patterns in your speaking errors. Most of these errors will come from your native language pre-dispositions, but everyone has their own set of personal weakness.
Once again, if you focus your attention just on fixing your consistent errors, you can eliminate 95% of your foreign accent in less than a month and master the sounds of your target language.
Point #4: Interact with Other Human Beings
If you want to learn a foreign language, you will need to extract yourself from the textbook opium den and spend as much time as you possibly can interacting with native speakers.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you don’t need me to tell you that. Benny Lewis’s Speak from Day 1 philosophy and extroverted personality is what got him from speaking 1 language at the age of 21 to almost a dozen at the age of 30. What more proof do you need?
Personally, I never set out to “learn a language,” I set out to “learn to communicate with people of a different culture.” And as long as sound is what people are chiefly relying on to communicate with one another, then sound is what I’m going to focus on.
Point #5: Replace the Unhealthy Addiction with a Healthy One
A lot of people successfully drop physically unhealthy addictions like smoking and drinking by replacing them with healthy ones like yoga and team sports. Similarly, you can replace your addiction to script with an addiction to sound.
Since starting The Mimic Method a year ago, I’m proud to say that I’ve produced a quite a few “Flow Junkies” who’ve learned to love and appreciate languages just for their sounds.
For example, I had a Spanish-student recently who, after finishing my Flow of Spanish course, signed up for my Flow of French course even though he has no intention of actually learning French. As he told me in his signup questionnaire:
“I just love the process so much, I wanna Flow in as many languages as I can!”
It may seem strange for someone to train sound without caring about the meaning, but if you think about it, it’s the same motivation behind learning a musical instrument. Melodies and drum rhythms don’t really “mean” anything, but the aesthetic of organized sound has its own addictive power if you allow yourself to get absorbed by it and “feel the flow“.
Mastering foreign language sound requires A LOT of mental exertion and repeated practice, and the best way to maintain the necessary discipline is to nurture a genuine enjoyment for the process.
So take a hit from the Flow-pipe and remember that not all drugs are bad 😉
Flow 101: Your One-Stop Shop for Sound-Education
My goal with my Mimic Method courses is to continually build a reservoir of learning resources for anyone interested in learning language through sound.
I just completed The Flow 101 Crash Course, which is free to subscribers to my Flow Newsletter. In this e-Course, you will learn about:
- The inner-workings of your speech organ and how to develop an awareness and mastery of it.
- The vital roles of “rhythm” and “intonation” in language and how to train your rhythmic and tonal perception.
- The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and how to use it.
- Several free web tools you can use to break down fast foreign speech and self-train your Flow.
This crash course will get you started with your sound-education foundations, but it won’t be enough. To really feel the flow, you will need to train regularly.
Sign up for The Flow 101 Crash Course here.
Thanks for reading! Keep on Flowin!
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.